This month’s Charcutepalooza project was hot-smoking, which is something I’ve done a fair amount of since buying my trusty smoker back in 2001 when we moved to the Brooklyn place with a deck. It has gotten a lot of loving use since then, helping ducks, chickens, pork bellies, briskets and many other things attain shiny umber patinas and diabolically delicious depths of flavor. As with so many other culinary urges, the seeds for smoking were planted long ago by since departed family. My Grandfather had a smoker, and his smoked chickens were truly things of beauty. Being an engineer–and one who built furnaces at that–he had long, complicated theories about how to control the smoking environment to achieve the best-tasting results: his favorite formula was that the humidity should increase over time in inverse proportion to the temperature inside the chamber.
I, being pretty much the opposite of an engineer when it comes to cooking, have a very different style. But I did get the chicken gene, evidently, because people loves them some of my smoked chickens. (My Grandfather also taught me how to make pickles, and I do it exactly the same way but with a 1% less salty brine than he used. The moral of the story is that channeling your peasant ancestors is the quickest way to culinary win). I have smoked pork shoulders before, usually to make pulled pork, but this time I figured I’d give tasso ham a try since I’m always interested in the different characteristics that various cuts and techniques end up imparting to food.
So I rubbed the shoulder with a basic cure of salt, pepper, garlic, allspice, rosemary, and juniper berries and let it sit overnight. The next day I rinsed it off and rubbed it with a variant of the standard rub (per Charcuterie, of course): black pepper, coffee, cayenne, and fresh marjoram. I love pork and coffee together, and good ground espresso is a frequent component of my spice rubs; it works well with lamb and beef as well. I lit the smoker and threw in some branches from the big sugar maple out back.
While the meat smoked, I hung some sausages up (see previous post) and put some lovely artisanal conchiglie into a metal colander and then into the smoker as well, giving them a shake and stir every 10 minutes so that they would all catch some smoke. After about half an hour I took the pasta out; it had a slightly russet sheen in places and a gently smoky smell. I took the pasta and soaked it in milk that had not turned into yogurt the day before because I took a much-needed nap and it overheated. That problem is fixed, so stay tuned for a yogurt post soon. But I didn’t want to throw away some perfectly tasty if unattractively clotted milk so I dumped it into the bowl. One quart just about covered one pound of pasta, and I stirred it around every few minutes so that all the noodles would hydrate evenly. After about half an hour, I strained off the smoked milk.
Once the ham came out–just shy of 150˚–I cut it into small cubes and got it browned gently in a pan. Once sizzling nicely, I added flour enough to turn the fat into a roux and stirred it until toasted. Then the milk went in to make a lovely smoky béchamel, to which I added a bunch of chopped ramps, copious grating of 1-year Vermont cheddar, smoked paprika, black pepper, truffle oil, and finally a splash of local blackcurrant brandy for a slight fondue vibe. I tossed the smoked shells in the mornay until thoroughly covered, then poured it into ramekins and topped it with panko and dabs of butter and more pepper. Into the oven they went.
Pre-soaking rather than boiling pasta is my method of choice for any dish where the pasta finishes in the oven. It allows the result to still have an al dente texture, which makes for more interesting eating, and also allows for introducing flavors into store-bought pasta depending on what you choose to soak it in. It’s important to remember that because the pasta is only partly hydrated it will absorb more of the sauce you bake it in, so you should make it a bit runnier than you would normally.
In this case, the smoke-infused pasta, milk, and meat added up to a dish that was super comfortable and yet quite sophisticated at the same time. The smoke pervaded, so that rather than having chunks of smoky meat suspended in an unsmoked matrix of starch and fat, the whole fabric of the dish was gently yet insistently perfumed with the flavor of maple smoke. And the supporting flavors of cheese, ramps, paprika, and truffle did some truly outstanding work to make this a winner across the board. I even added some green garlic on top as a garnish because I still love them every bit as much as ramps and don’t want them to feel snubbed now that their fatter, stronger, fancier brethren are coming up.
This ham will surely make some killer eggs benedict, which I know some people are making from scratch. It will not suck in more trysts of my ongoing torrid affair with grilled sandwiches. And I have plans to make jambalaya now that I found some good crawfish. But at the end of the day, what matters is that having some cured and smoked meat around allows for better food no matter what you make. One handful of minced cured and/or smoked pork can turn a pasta sauce or pot of beans or bunch of greens or anything else into something far more deep, decadent, and satisfying. Charcuterie is a lever that can move large volumes of food a great distance towards excellence, giving us more options and more pleasure. And since a little goes such a long way, it’s the most efficient way to consume animals.
I opened a 2007 Faiveley Mercurey to go with this, and initially I was disappointed at the strongly vegetal nose. Not quite the full-on green bell pepper smell that young Bordeaux can have, but quite sharply unripe. I double-decanted it to see if that would help it wake up, and over about 20 minutes it did rise to the occasion. It’s a fascinating thing to monitor the evolution of an unpleasant flavor into a pleasant one; by the time the food was ready, that unripeness had seamlessly morphed into a warm, foresty funk with notes of sourdough and a slight cedary highlight. It was pretty dreamy with the rich pasta: the sturdy, earthy juice with graceful overtones fit beautifully with the smoky, luxe mac and chee.